The task of establishing a circular fashion economy is widely accepted as crucial, given that a truckload of textiles is incinerated or buried every second, according to a global estimate by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The charity has also calculated that the underuse of clothes and the lack of recycling of clothes costs the global economy more than $500billion (£420billion) a year. The longer term price paid by the environment is likely to be much higher. The microplastics that synthetic fibers in our clothes shed during washing have been found in human blood, the placenta and, more recently, snow in Antarctica.
Developments such as the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan of 2015 and the UK’s Circular Economy Package of 2020 have prompted many fashion retailers to take action. The EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, published last March, also underlined the importance for the industry of a credible long-term strategy for sustainability, recycling and waste management. In June, Boris Johnson even pledged £80million in public funding to help establish a “circular fashion model”.
But critics of the fashion industry’s historically wasteful practices say ‘circularity’ has become just a buzzword, used by companies looking to apply a layer of greenwash to their continual wasteful habits.
Garment take-back programs have become central to the sector’s circularity dynamic. The charity Waste & Resources Action Program (Wrap) estimates that such schemes – adopted by companies including H&M, M&S and Primark – prevented 620,000 tonnes of used textiles from ending up in UK landfills in 2018. H&M said that its “Close the Loop” recycling and repair initiative collected 18,800 tonnes of unused clothing – the equivalent of 94 million T-shirts – in 2020.
Juliet Lennon, program manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, says: “Rentals, resales, redesigns and repairs have the potential to represent 23% of the global fashion market by 2030, representing an opportunity for 700 billion dollars.
Retailers work with white-label services such as Yellow Octopus and I:CO, which sort clothes into categories for reuse or recycling, based on their properties and condition. In theory, such innovations are welcome, but not all collected clothes are suitable for one or another process. I:CO, a partner in H&M’s take-back program, recently reported that 8% of what it receives is neither reusable nor recyclable and should therefore be incinerated.
More concerning is research published by Greenpeace in April, which claimed that no more than 30% of used clothing remains in the country of donation. Much of the rest is sent to countries in the South, where it often ends up “on huge landfills, on open fires, along riverbeds and swept into the sea”.
The Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana illustrates the extent of this problem. Around 15 million garments enter the market each week. Some of these may be used to support the local textile industry, but researchers estimate that 40% of the items are of such poor quality that they are considered worthless upon arrival and are either buried or burned.
Greenpeace Germany campaigner Viola Wohlgemuth says countries like Ghana “do not have the infrastructure to deal with the large volumes of textiles coming in, even if they were all reusable”.
The large-scale dumping of unwanted textiles is creating a socio-economic and environmental crisis for local communities. The waste is a health hazard because its decomposition not only releases microfibers into waterways, but also produces dangerous levels of flammable methane.
Moving clothes from one country to another is by no means circular. The practice simply shifts the burden to a territory with limited capacity to manage it and weaker environmental laws. Chile, for example, has long been a hub for used and unsold clothing from around the world. The port city of Iquique accepts almost 60,000 tonnes a year, but less than half of this material is purchased by merchants for resale. The rest is simply dumped into huge mounds in the surrounding Atacama Desert, where it could take two centuries to biodegrade.
Wohlgemuth recounts a recent visit to Gikomba, Kenya, where she found herself walking along the banks of the Nairobi River and realized that it was mostly piles of textile waste, hence the clothes fell and were carried downstream. It is not surprising that such experiences led her to conclude that “the system does not work”.
Transparency is key to encouraging participation in any sustainability initiative. A recent Wrap survey found that 42% of consumers thought it was important to know the likely destinations of their donated garments.
“When people return clothes, they expect those items to be reused, to raise money for charity or to benefit people in need,” says Wohlgemuth. “They wouldn’t expect them to end up in huge overflowing landfills in Africa.”
Some retailers are implementing incentive programs that offer customers coupons for donating used clothing, but such initiatives have drawn criticism for fueling additional consumption, which works against the economy. circular. There has been “little evidence of plans to reduce the flow of fashion – a prerequisite for any meaningful attempt at circularity”, says Wohlgemuth.
When donating clothing or purchasing “sustainable” clothing made from recycled polyester, consumers should proceed with caution, she adds. Regulations such as the Competition and Markets Authority’s Green Claims Code are designed to prevent companies from making misleading claims, but she says “most claims of circularity are greenwashing.” Less than 1% of the garments produced are actually made from recycled textiles.
Sarah Gray, senior analyst for textiles at Wrap, recommends that companies build “a strong evidence base to ensure they can verify recycled content details to ensure their circularity claims are true. “.
Authentic and effective circular initiatives call for higher standards of supply chain risk reporting; effective monitoring systems; investment in technology to improve transparency; and legally compliant collection processes.
Lennon believes that “economic and regulatory incentives are needed to increase the viability of circular business models, as voluntary commitments by industry leaders alone will not reach the required scale.”
Retailers should also focus on consistency. Any company that speaks out about plastic packaging as part of its circularity approach, but does not publicly disclose the volume of synthetic materials in its collections, for example, should reconsider its approach. This will be the key to its long-term survival.
Opaque reverse logistics operations and half-hearted circularity initiatives leave companies vulnerable to several ESG risks — and investors, if not consumers, are watching closely.